Referee Chris Lee is perfectly positioned, watching the play unfold as Nick Suzuki rises from the ice next to the Vegas goal. Brayden McNabb is standing there, waiting to mete out some punishment for no reason other than he feels free to do whatever he wants to the smaller Habs player.
McNabb hits Suzuki with a half-hearted cross-check, as Lee circles into the frame. The 20-year NHL ref is talking directly to the players, likely informing that the puck is long gone. Reminding them not to escalate.
Suzuki pushes back on the bigger Vegas defenceman, showing he’s not afraid. It’s just a push — no penalty here.
Lee is now five feet away, standing still with his gaze fixed. Nothing impedes his vision of the exchange.
Then, McNabb escalates. He punches Suzuki in the face with a gloved hand. Lee has the perfect angle and 10 seconds of history on the play.
Folks, this is a penalty for the entirety of my 30-plus years covering the National Hockey League.
We’re not talking about the missed high-stick on Corey Perry, an egregious missed call but one that happens in an instant. A play where perhaps a referee had his vision impaired at the last second, or he thought the puck did the damage.
This is a conscious decision on a play that unfolds as slowly as any hockey play could possibly unfold. A scenario that is cemented in an official’s head: I’ve warned the players (we assume), they’ve traded legal shots, and one guy takes it too far.
In a referee’s mind it is textbook: “I warned you not to escalate, you did it anyhow, and you’ve left me no choice but to call a roughing minor.”
Nobody in hockey blames a referee for making that call. We all blame McNabb for lacking discipline.
But today, in the NHL’s semifinal series, Lee does not make that call.
Nor do he or fellow zebra Dan O’Rourke call a penalty on a Joel Edmundson cross check that drives William Carrier’s face into the end boards in the first period. That borders on a major penalty all year long, but in the most important games of the year, either the referee OK’s the play, or he chokes on the call.
Then Tomas Nosek flagrantly hits Shea Weber from behind a period later. Two feet from the boards, a dangerous outcome, potentially injurious. Lee is perfectly positioned, standing right there, declaring it legal.
It is absolutely the definition of hitting from behind and has been since the play was deemed worthy of a major penalty back in 1991. Thirty years ago.
There isn’t a millimetre of wiggle room here, but because Lee freezes on the Nosek hit, he could not possibly call one of the vicious crosschecks Weber plants into Nosek’s back as they head up ice. Or the punch in the back of Nosek’s head.
In the end Lee calls coincidental minors. He has successfully called penalties without affecting the game in any way, perhaps his goal all along, though he has in no way maintained a standard or protected the next player from another hit from behind.
Folks, we have lost the plot on National Hockey League refereeing.
When the best referees in the league perform like they have this spring, there is a problem.
When Connor McDavid can play eight playoff games over two seasons, yet not draw a single penalty — despite ranking sixth in the regular season over that span in penalties drawn — there is a problem.
When only three of the Top 25 salaried players in the league are still playing in the semifinals — and two of those are goalies — we have a problem.
We asked players on Monday what they thought about the standard, and always, they didn’t want to say much. Some fear reprisal by the officials, some just don’t like the look of focusing on things that are out of their control.
“It’s different from regular season to playoffs. The refs are letting a little bit more stuff go,” offered Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault. “I thought that Will Carrier got crushed in the first period in the corner, and he’s not a little guy.”
But he quickly reverts to hockey’s clichés. The kind of “fight through it” mindset that has taken the playoff game away from the most skilled players, and handed to the six-foot-four defencemen who wield sticks like police batons at a riot.
“It’s adversity that teams need to face in the playoffs. Good teams will find a way to go through it,” Marchessault said of the officiating, when it goes bad. “Just have to battle through it. Find a way.”
National Hockey League referees aren’t corrupt. They’re not biased against your team.
Are they having some awful moments this spring? Yes, they are, but we would go much further than that.
What I can not square is how a play that has been a penalty for my 30-plus years covering this league is no longer a penalty. How we can figure out that it’s a batter game when slashes to the hands are called, but hits from behind and punches to the head go from regular season illegal to playoff legal?
“What’s the standard? I’ve got no idea,” said Kevin Bieksa, on Sunday’s Sportsnet broadcast.
On the other network, Pierre McGuire was saying ostensibly the exact same thing.
I’ve covered the league since the mid-80s.
Don’t ask me what a penalty is anymore.
Like Chris Lee and Dan O’Rourke, I do not have a clue.